John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run (1960) was written, according to the author, then 28, as a response to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, “depict[ing] what happens when a young American family man goes on the road . . . [it is] the people left behind [who] get hurt.”
There, behind the Brewer, Pennsylvania ice plant, a backboard and hoop have been nailed to a telephone pole. A group of young boys gather, a game of basketball having sprouted from the cracks of the concrete slab like bracts of green grass and yellow weeds too long festering. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom stands there watching the children play, a cigarette dangling from his lip. Though he is not, he cannot help but wonder if the boys infer him a deviant of some sort, a sexual pervert ogling at them in their common game.
He was once that boy there in the green knit stocking cap pushed over his ears, “the natural. The way [the boy] moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way [the boy] waits before he moves.”
The basketball skips off the front of the rim, bounces away from the children, rolls to his feet, and stops. Rabbit bends down in his business suit and lifts the ball to chest level. He has almost forgotten what the leather feels like, “that old stretched-leather feeling makes his whole body go taut, gives his arms wings,” what it smells like. The cigarette smoke fills his lungs and he breathes out, flicking the cigarette to the ground, crushing it. He massages the basketball like a sore muscle with two hands, sets his feet, displacing loose pebbles underneath foot, squares his shoulders, and follows through. The ball reaches its highest point and cambers down from the sky and through the nylon net. He looks at the boys in the ice plant yard, sullen. “They have not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him.”
Rabbit, the protagonist of Updike’s most memorable novel, is a 6’3″, 26-year-old, former basketball star turned kitchen gadget door-to-door salesman, pushing the Magi-Peel Kitchen Peeler, a tool he sells despite believing it to be a fraud like Walt Disney and the Mouseketeers but “fraud makes the world go round . . . [is] the base of our economy” and we, our culture, keep it spinning.
His wife, Janice, is seven months pregnant with their second child and a complacent alcoholic. The couple married young after Janice became pregnant with their first child, Nelson, when Rabbit was 21. When Rabbit returns home, there his wife sits in the armchair: drunk. Toys litter the floor. Her eyes are reddened and bloodshot from staring into the “vast wasteland” as Newton N. Minow once said in reference to television; and she, Janice, is contented in living this way. “Just yesterday, it seems to him, she stopped being pretty.” Rabbit can no longer take living this way and runs.
Rabbit Angstrom is a character on the run simultaneously frozen in time by his past: once a star athlete, now faded and fizzling, just another flicker in the night sky of Kerouac’s universe; trapped, Rabbit feels by his poor decisions, by the complacency and coldness of his wife, her pregnancy, by the fraudulence and plasticity of the American dream in post World War II America, that he cannot escape though try he must as accounted in Rabbit, Run. What he finds in his departure is that which he cannot escape; and what of his family, of the birth of his new child, his wife, and the woman he meets, Ruth Leonard, while away? Will Rabbit run or will he man up to the life he has chosen for himself? Do they get it? Do they get him?
In typical Updike style, the prose is vivid and the picturesque landscape that of a literary realist tradition. The reader cannot help but feel crouched down beside Rabbit as he plants flowers and pulls weeds in Mrs. Smith’s garden or on the road from Brewer, Pennsylvania to the country roads of West Virginia. Updike is the master of setting the scene, of “giv[ing] the mundane its beautiful due,” as he once said.
Questions of marriage and fidelity, family and individualism, love and sexuality, as well as organized religion and isolated conviction are common themes in Rabbit, Run by John Updike, which can be purchased at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon.com, beginning at $8 new or $2.95 used. If you have yet to read Updike, let this be your introduction. Updike was a generational documentarian in the literary field from 1960 until his recent death almost one year ago on January 27, 2009.